This was the absolute last time she kissed anyone under the mistletoe.
Kate Summers turned away from the video camera’s prying eye and surreptitiously wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. When she’d arrived at Waxman Motors that afternoon, all she’d wanted was Orren Waxman’s signature on the catering contract for the Morrisburg Chamber of Commerce Christmas party. She’d had no idea he’d be filming one of his goofy TV commercials.
Faster than he could bellow, “Ho, ho, ho,” the Santa suit-clad Orren had grabbed her, pulled her under the big ball of mistletoe dangling from the showroom ceiling, and planted a big smooch right on her mouth with the camera rolling. Afterward, he’d grinned and carried on with his spiel as if her appearance were part of the script. The second the cameraman swiveled to pan the array of cars sporting big red bows, Kate extricated herself from Orren’s grasp. With luck, the video company would charge him double overtime to re-shoot the spot because of his impromptu ad lib.
She shrugged her bag off her shoulder. “I brought the contract for you to sign.”
Orren’s plump, glistening lips slid into a smile beneath his feeble excuse for a moustache. “There’s plenty of time for that. Hang around until we’re finished, and I’ll buy you a drink at Charley’s.”
Her mouth tightened. “You never give up, do you?”
His smile broadened, and he shook his head. “Never. You know my motto—persistence wins the day. Where would I be if I took my eyes off the prize?”
That was Orren—one big, walking slogan. Too bad he’d had a thing for her since ninth grade. In the past couple of years, his overtures had become more frequent and more boring. He’d been a smarmy weasel at fifteen and hadn’t improved with age. The fact that he’d grown his father’s sleepy little used car lot into the biggest dealership in the county didn’t increase his appeal one iota.
She pulled the contract and a pen from her bag. “I’m sorry, but I’m tied up this evening. I need you to sign this now. Please.”
“All right, all right.” He took the papers. When he finished, he flashed his brows a couple of times, as if he thought that made him look sexy.
Kate practically snatched the contract from his hands. Even a brief encounter with Orren made her skin crawl. Unfortunately, as president of the Chamber, his signature was required on all official documents, including her catering contract. At least she should be able to keep her distance from him at the party. If he tried to make a grab for her across a steaming tray of green bean casserole, she could always smack him with a serving spoon.
She turned and had almost reached the door when Orren called out, “Oh, Katie…I heard David Hardison’s back in town…and unemployed. Too bad.”
She froze, and her heart thudded in her chest at the mention of David’s name.
“Just thought you’d want to know.”
Of course you did, you worm.
Orren’s laughter trailed after her as she shoved her way through the heavy glass doors and escaped to her car in the parking lot next to the building. Her hand shaking, she struggled to fit the key into the ignition. Finally, it slid home and the engine turned over, but Kate made no move to switch the transmission to Reverse. She just sat there, trying to catch her breath and make sense of Orren’s words.
David was back. Was it possible? She hadn’t seen him in…what...ten years? Not since the summer after college graduation, when family responsibilities—along with the certainty that she wasn’t cut out to be a big city girl—had caused her to decline his invitation to move to New York with him. After being inseparable for the last two years of high school and struggling to make a long distance relationship work through college, they’d parted with recriminations and tears and moved on with their lives. At least he had. She’d come home to help run Katie’s Place, the restaurant her grandma had named after her when she was born.
To say she hadn’t seen David wasn’t strictly true. After high school, he’d parlayed excellent grades and stellar basketball skills into a full-ride scholarship to an Ivy League college, while she attended the state university in the next county to save money. As soon as he graduated, an internship in New York had led to a newswriting job and ultimately to a position as lead foreign correspondent. For the past several years, she’d watched him on the television network news whenever a new hot spot flared up overseas. She hadn’t seen him on a broadcast in a couple of months, but that wasn’t unusual.
David might have made a name for himself and won a shelf full of awards, but every time she watched him, dressed in a khaki flak jacket and helmet, reporting from one war zone or another, Kate told herself she was glad they’d split up. Although they were no longer a couple, it was hard enough to tamp down her fears for his safety, even from the sanctuary of her living room sofa. If they’d gotten married, she might have lost her mind—all alone in New York City, watching and waiting anxiously for him to come home.
But now he was back and, if Orren was to be believed, jobless. She couldn’t imagine the network firing David. He was one of their rising stars. Whatever was going on, she would probably find out in the next few days, courtesy of the town grapevine. Unless she ran into him first.
The thought stopped her cold. Was she ready to see David again? Even though it had been ten years, the passage of time did nothing to calm the nervous butterflies in her stomach. Morrisburg, Illinois was a small town, and she and David knew the same people, hung out in the same places. When they inevitably crossed paths, what would he say? More importantly, how should she respond? She decided the only reasonable option was to smile and greet him like any other old high school friend.
Feeling more confident now that she had a plan, Kate put her car in gear and pulled out of the Waxman Motors lot without a backward glance. Various scenarios played out in her mind as she drove the couple of miles past darkened cornfields before the two lane highway turned into the main street of town.
It was after six o’clock, and most of the businesses in the quaint, Victorian downtown had closed. Multi-colored lights twinkled cheerfully from the garlands that hung between the old-fashioned lampposts that lined both sides of the street, illuminating clusters of tourists on their way to the restaurants that remained open for dinner. The holiday season always brought an influx of visitors to the historic Mississippi River town, and although many were day-trippers from Rockford, Cedar Rapids, or even Chicago, the town boasted a restored, nineteenth century hotel and a number of bed-and-breakfasts.
Many of those visitors ended up at Katie’s Place—some returning year after year. Kate’s grandma had opened the restaurant thirty years earlier, offering hearty, homestyle breakfast and lunch favorites. The past couple of years, Grandma had decided to spend winters in Florida, so Kate and her mother had taken over most of the responsibility for running Katie’s place. Not that Grandma had actually slowed down. Far from it. Kate was currently managing the restaurant on her own because Grandma had broken her hip last week skateboarding with the neighbor kids, and Mom had flown to Florida to take care of her.
As she cruised down Main Street toward home, a tall figure caught her attention. Even with his shoulders hunched against the cold, the man’s head bobbed inches above the others on the sidewalk as he passed the gift shop next to Katie’s Place. Kate slowed her car. Something about his gait jogged a memory deep inside her. He reminded her of David. Of course, after Orren’s comment, every tall man she saw was likely to remind her of David.
The man stopped in front of the restaurant, put his hands to the glass of the big front window, and leaned forward, peering into the darkened interior. What could he be doing?A sudden honk jerked Kate’s attention back to the road. She glanced in the mirror at the impatient face of the driver riding her rear bumper. Five or six cars had piled up behind him. She pressed the gas pedal and surged forward, leaving the man behind. If only she’d been able to catch a glimpse of his face…